tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Book offers perspective on democracy’s potential

One of the best things anyone could do to start their new year is read “The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad” by Fareed Zakaria. I had chance to hear Zakaria speak at an industry meeting I attended in October and was intrigued enough to take home a copy of his book. It turned out to be the most interesting political work I read all year.

I read the book at the tail end of the lengthy presidential campaign, which seems like appropriate timing. But it might be even more appropriate to read “The Future of Freedom” now, given the spate of very important elections that are taking place around the globe. In the Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko has just been elected president, a pronounced move to the West for the former Soviet satellite. Palestinians are set to elect a successor to Yasser Arafat on Sunday, and by the end of the month, Iraq is suppose to conduct an election.

What can we expect from these elections? Do elections mean democracy? And, even if they do, does democracy necessarily mean freedom? Zakaria, the editor of the international edition of Newsweek magazine, gives us a sound primer for tackling these questions.

The first third of the book gives us background on democracy and the meaning of the term “liberal” in the context of characterizing a political culture. We learn that countries with a certain per capita income have a better chance of transitioning to liberal democracies, that is, democratic countries where people enjoy fundamental freedoms. We learn that an abundance of natural resources don’t necessarily give a country a better chance of achieving liberal democracy. And we learn that the number of countries that feature the seemingly contradictory combination of democratic elections and authoritarian rule is increasing around the world.

But the book’s later chapters offered the material I found particularly meaningful. In a chapter he calls “The Islamic Exception,” Zakaria gives us a glimpse into the Arab League, where not one of its 22 member nations is an electoral democracy. (Sixty-three percent of the countries around the world are.) He has some interesting observations about authority, noting, for example, the lack of a central authoritarian figure in the Islamic religion. “The decision to oppose the state on the grounds that it is insufficiently Islamic belongs to anyone who wishes to exercise it,” he writes. “This much Islam shares with Protestantism. Just as any Protestant with just a little training – Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson – can declare himself a religious leader, so also any Muslim can opine on issues of faith. In a religion without an official clergy, bin Laden has as much – or as little – authority to issue fatwas as does a Pakistani taxi driver in New York City.”

In a later chapter, “The Death of Authority,” Zakaria describes a process of democratization underway in the Western world that is knocking down old caste systems. Just about everyone can have a say in almost anything these days, but accountability is lacking and it is getting much harder to accomplish anything in a system where everyone has access to the same information and resources. Leaders who have emerged in the late 20th Century have done so solely because of wealth, and many of those folks lack the sense of social responsibility that civic and cultural leaders held a century ago.

In his chapter, “The Way Out,” Zakaria argues that in the United States we have too much democracy. Earlier, he cites California with its propositions, as an example of an elective system that has advanced itself right into gridlock. He likes bodies such as the Federal Reserve and the Supreme Court as models for elective legislative bodies. They are political, but they enjoy a high level of insulation from political distractions.

I like the way Zakaria brings together examples from around the world, from religion, and from American culture into a coherent essay about the state of our world. We all love democracy, but Zakaria reminds us that democracy in and of itself is not Utopian. Like any man-made construct, democracy has its limits. It is preferable to any other form of government, but like anything else of value, its maintenance requires proper care. Prepared with the observations and ideas presented in “The Future of Freedom,” I think we might be better equipped to offer that care.

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